Monday, May 20, 2019

Why Game of Thrones Needed to Hurt Your Feelings

Sometimes social media shows itself to be the strange lens that it is. Lately, I’ve had this experience with Game of Thrones, the popular TV show (I mention for posterity or anyone waking from a coma), where I find that the more people dislike the latest episodes, the more I tend to like them. And this isn’t just people in their free time, but reporters and other professionals laying out elaborate analyses of just how this show has gone off the rails. Many even saying the GoT staff should apologize or, stunt or not, remake the final season. 

The fault, dear viewers, is not in the art, but in ourselves. For one, social media gives us the illusion of power to dictate how our media should be made. I say “illusion” here in the hope that we succeed less than we have already. I’m certain that most of the media we consume is made by people imagining how it might be tweeted about. It’s a scary world where art is democratized. 

Also, I think the distaste for how Game of Thrones is ending is a symptom of our feasting on the candy of superhero narratives for the last decade. Not that I have anything against superhero narratives. But for the last decade Hollywood has been saved by a constant outpouring of comic book superheroes from our childhood.  We’ve grown so soft from these narratives that it seems we can’t recognize tragedy even as we’re watching it unfold. 

The story people are coming down from, the Avengers, ended with a guy snapping his fingers and making the world back to what it was. Granted, we are watching fantasy here (both in narrative and in every great hero also having their own great costume designers) but the idea that things can become so terrible and that a magical act of sacrifice will not only stop the worst from getting worse, but will put everything back the way it was before is, well, Disney as it’s always been. 

Game of Thrones final episodes works to wake us from this fantasy. (Yes, I am talking about the show with dragons and ice zombies, but at its best—why we all fell for this show—these aspects are meant to show us humanity from a new perspective.)  The superhero of GoT is made historically accurate. The Iron Man of the last eight seasons becomes Thanos in the penultimate episode. Daenerys is elevated to such power that she becomes a brutal dictator (the image and the speech clearly meant to hit all the notes of 20th-century fascism/Stalinism). 

The only complaint I agreed with regarding this last season is that this turn in Daenerys felt rushed. But with the final episode I see that this transition happening in just two episodes was intentional. Liberators can become tyrants in the blink of an eye. Take your pick from history. 

In the end, Game of Thrones, in part at least, wound up being an allegory about absolutism and revolution. The wheel that had to be broken was not just that of kings and rulers seeking power, but of an underclass defeating the ruling class and then becoming the ruling class only to become corrupt and taken over again. Compromise is the message, or at least the political message, of this tragedy. 

As painful as it is to come down from this sugar high, thank god we have Game of Thrones to pull us back into balance. 

Depth of character does not come in always winning. It comes when we see heroes torn down in their prime, or decay before our eyes. It also serves to remind us that the world is not as simple as good conquering over evil. The decisions we make in life should come with caution, not just a rally cry.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Week Off

I missed last week. Sorry all. Had a bit of a stomach bug that had me hurrying to get ready for the week of work. But also, I have this week off!

So, I figured now would be a good time to tell the world about Super-Golden Week. This week marks the end of an era in Japan, literally. A new emperor will be named and in the land of 12-hour, six-day work weeks, everyone--well, arguably many people--will have the longest holiday they have seen: 10 solid days off. That is, unless you have any responsibility involving the calendar changes. The year in Japan will be going from Hesei 31 to Reiwa 1 on May 1st. This means there will be countless Japanese IT workers chewing on pens at midnight the way the world did for y2k.

For many people though, it seems a great time to travel, camp and relax. I hope this is truly the case.

As I'm sure many reading this know, those of us here who are not Japanese live a blessed life. Though there are of course certain problems (glass, nay, concrete ceilings, always being an "outsider") for the most part (and I know there are exceptions; and in particular with people newly emigrating from other parts of Asia to do manual labor) we're not expected to pull the crazy hours that our colleagues must.

Some of you not in Japan may have just a sense of how much people work here, so let me clarify it for you. Many white-collar workers in Japan work hours of overtime everyday. Many people with well-paying jobs are expected to work most weekends too; some people I know work 6-days a week every week, others get only a few days off a month. In addition to this, many are also expected to work through part or all of the longer holidays (Golden Week this time around being an exception) and are expected not to take contracted days off work.

People actually die of overwork here. Not suicide due to overwork (although this happens frequently enough) but die of exhaustion.

I don't think this nonstop-work is the case for all workers here, but it is for enough that it seems the norm. And with very little interest from the powers that be to enforce any restrictions, it seems to be a growing trend.  It's a hard life.

I worry in particular about having a family here because I think my immunity to working those hours (or, in other words, the fact I have the work I do have) is achievable only that I'm not Japanese. Though my son may grow up to be better than me at the work I do, he'll be expected to preform his duties as a Japanese citizen.

So, for those of you reading this who, like me, have found a way to enjoy these long breaks from work and make a living, let's keep in mind those of our friends, colleagues and family who are still plugging away. Let's help Japan make much needed reform or help our help the next generation find a way away from this country working them to death.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Person Eaten by Lions : D

Every so often there's a link to an article on Facebook about a poacher or big-game hunter being killed by some animal. It used to be I'd only see such stories celebrated on Ricky Gervais' page, but just this week I've seen (and I imagine many of you have seen) an article shared from news sources including CBS News and The Guardian about a poacher being trampled by elephants and then eaten by lions. Usually this article is shared with some joke about karma and many people laughing about it. 

I find this troubling for a few reasons. But first let me say I am on the poacher side here, but the human side. I find it odd to celebrate the death of some unknown person doing an illegal act that doesn't involve harming other people. I mean if, say, a cocaine dealer was murdered by one of his clients, would we similarly celebrate? Even though this is a person much more directly harming other people? Further, many of the same people I see celebrating animal justice are also fervently against capital punishment. Again, not supporting either position here, but I just find it a strange dichotomy. 

Another interesting aspect of this is that many of those so adamantly for the animals in this situation, have never seen these animals outside of a zoo. I, like many of those I see sharing these articles, see lions and elephants much in the way Europeans did hundreds of years ago; they are semi-magical creatures from another content. Although, unlike Europeans of previous centuries, instead of wanting their skins on a wall, I find their lives to hold more value than chickens and cows. That seems obvious I suppose, but why? I've touched cows and chickens, I've never touched an elephant or lion. Perhaps this distance keeps these animals in their majestic state?

But here's the unsettling part: does celebrating the death of a poacher over the death of a criminal whose victims are human place the lives of these animals over the lives of humans? Again, I think those who break such laws (abusing animals, threatening a species, etc) should be punished, but should the punishment be death? And you might say, "Well, this is nature acting, not society," but does that mean we should celebrate it? How far removed is the act of celebrating the death of a poacher and killing a poacher? Are we heading for a world where killing a poacher will be seen as fair punishment? Are we already there? 

With this, another question, what is the life of a poacher? How many of us can imagine any likely details outside of killing rare animals illegally for money? Are they rich? Are they desperate? In either case, what do we think these words translate to in their world? That is, if they are rich, what is "rich" to them? I don't imagine them idling they Porsche in front of Starbucks on their day off. If desperate, what is that to them? Like the lions and elephants, their roles in this are also preserved in their distance from ourselves. The poacher too is a semi-magical creature. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Notes on Routine

Pardon this self-help guru opening, but I want to share a secret with you. This is definitely the most valuable thing I’ve learned in life. Many of you may already know it, but it never hurts to say it again—and I could really use hearing it again. It’s this: that if you want to do anything in life, it’s all about establishing routine. This can be for good or bad, of course, but you can also replace bad routines with good ones. The only hard part is starting. Especially, I find, when it comes to restarting. 

I’ve been trying to get back into writing. (Hence, the stuttering restart of this blog.) I feel like I forgot how to ride a bicycle. 

When I first came to Japan some 10 years ago, I was a marathon writer. (I suppose it helped to reset my entire life by picking up and dropping myself off on the other side of the world with two pieces of luggage and pretty much no knowledge of the local language.) I used to go to a cafe after dinner and spend 2 hours every night working on my poetry. I even had the days down to a routine. First, I would read some poetry by some real masters of the craft, ideally works and voices that were in tune with what I was working on at the time. After about 30 minutes of that, I would try starting a new poem. This sometimes just led to some journal writing with a few images, or at other times would pick right up into laying out lines and stanzas. After finding a stopping point there, I would begin editing poems I had started and preparing them to be put into submission packs. 

This worked really well. While I wasn’t spending long days on single works (like during my MFA days) I was steadily producing decent work. Some of it not so great, but some of it really good. Without a doubt this was when I was getting the most readership I had had. 

Then, as happens, the system broke down. There were some factors that led to this. Success definitely lowered my own standards on myself, and possibly those of editors I was writing to. Also, I feel that I was beginning to try to write poems that were more like the ones that were being excepted into journals. However, it was when I broke from this that I found I was publishing less. Then again, at the same time I was trying to publish is harder markets at the same time, so of course I was publishing less. In the end, actually, rejections probably were what wore me down. I was still writing, but only occasionally. And it grows more and more difficult to move through the medium and to find that flow. 

Over years of only occasionally coming back to it, I’ve decided to give the routine another go. I know expecting the same level of work from myself now as at my peak would be a brutal attack on myself. Maybe this is why it’s so much harder to come back to something? That you can’t help but compare yourself now to who you were? No matter how fast it comes back, stumbling through what was once effortless (well, relatively effortless) can be enough to kill any effort. 

Anyway, the plan is to keep this blog posting thing up on a weekly basis and then start putting in a couple hours a week for more creative writing ventures. 

In conjunction with this, I’m thinking to post up some of the poems I’ve written more recently that haven’t found a home in any journals and maybe along with some comments on them. I know this is not really what poets do usually. But I watched Bill Knott put his work out there at a furious pace in his blog back when I was spending my nights at cafes. He would post several times a day, replacing drafts with markings and comments and posting full volumes of his work. It was something special. I am not the master Bill was, but I think what he did should not be seen as taboo. The internet has altered all communication, it’s up to us to make those changes for the best. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Insisting on the Hard Way

Another delay, but I think next week will see some chance to get a rhythm going.

I just finished this huge project that ate up these last 2 weeks. Not sure how much I can say about it, but I think I can say that I spent many hours reading mostly terrible translations of Japanese phrases into English. There were some really good ones as well, but even those were 99% of the time clearly off the mark.

I really don't know why Japanese businesses are seeking out Japanese people to translate Japanese into English. As I've learned in studying Japanese (and heard from others who are more proficient in the language than I), translating into a second language is a recipe for disaster. There are a few people that can do it without many errors, but there will always be errors. Perhaps in languages with a common root it's not so bad, but when you're going from something as broad as the East to the West or the West to the East, you need native fluency on your side.

I've thought about this a lot lately (especially after reading this article). With all that Japan is doing to prepare for its cosmopolitan debute in 2020, hopefully they'll realize that when they want to communicate with the world, breathe out with Westerners, breathe in with Japanese.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Language Tests and What I've Learned (Besides How to Take a Language Test)

After many years of trash talking language-proficiency tests of all kinds, I finally decided to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (the one and only JLPT) last year, and I'm currently studying to take it again this summer. 

The reason I hated--and in many ways still hate--such tests, is that I feel they often aren't used as a measure of one's skills, but as a method of studying to reach a level mastery. The fatal flaw in this, of course, is that studying for a test only makes you more proficient at that test. 

Or at least so I believed over these last few years. Friends had told me, though, that having a goal really kicks your studying into gear. And they were right. Before I signed up for the JLPT last summer, I was mostly reviewing material I had been trying to bring into my everyday conversations and occasionally adding new material but with no real system to it. It was like I thought some word or phrase was interesting or useful and I'd try to memorize it. But after signing up, I began studying the test material and adding new words, grammatical structures, and reaching up with my reading at an intense rate. 

I definitely improved my vocabulary and reading ability. However, I know that in this time and as I continue to study my speaking ability is getting worse and worse. 

This is something I often see in my students of English as they begin to study for English proficiency tests. My youngest students become more and more comfortable conversing in English, but when the testing begins, they stop talking and start memorizing. 

It's like if I give you a toolbox and a hammer and a screwdriver, then teach you how to use those two tools, you'll get comfortable using them. When you see a nail you'll think "My hammer can handle that." But then one day I come and give you a hundred tools and say, "Okay, I'm going to teach you how these work this week," after that week you see a nail and you begin thinking, "Um. I think the hammer could work this. But I also have this claw, this mallet, oh and that finishing hammer." So after a few moments of panic, you decide to just leave the nail hanging out there. 

Still, eliminating such tests is certainly not a solution. But I think language learners, especially young learners whose parents haven't mastered a second language, must be careful not to lose balance between gaining knowledge of a language and gaining use of a language. Too often the tests win out. It's far easier to praise a grade then it is to praise one's ability to accomplish tasks in a learned language when those opportunities are so limited when the language is not the local language. 

Anyway, as I said, I've decided to take this test again. I'm hoping that having it on my resume will help me make a move into some new fields of work, but I also hope that studying for this test will also improve my writing and reading comprehension. But I'm definitely going to spend less time buried in books this time around and be sure to get out and speak to people more. What use is learning a language if you all you can do is take it in? Keep that output up, folks. 

And, hey, that goes for all this messaging and social media stuff too. Knowing how to talk and knowing how to read a book are very different things than talking to people and reading books. If we don't use it, we'll certainly lose it. 

Well, that's enough rambling from me. Sorry for the lack of editing on here. Hope you enjoyed the read! Email me! 

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Ok, a Slight Delay...

A little behind on my weekly promise, but I have a good excuse. On February 19th my wife gave birth to our son, Alexander.

It was a wild couple of weeks, but in the end we're all home safe and sound.

Alex really digs his sleep, so we're also blessed in that way, too. Forgive me for sparing you all the baby pictures, but my wife and I have decided to keep Alex off social media until he's old enough to know what the Internet is and whether he'd like his image all over it or not. It is hard not to splash him up for the world to see (as far as babies go, he is indeed among the cute), and I have of course emailed photos to friends and family that are just too far away to see him. But I can't help thinking back to my own childhood, and really my life now. That no one reading this can simply search and find my baby photos is a very nice thing to know. Privacy is a treasure, and giving it away (as I often do with my life as an adult (case in point)) comes with its own rewards, but I feel that giving away his privacy (well, the privacy of the person he will become) is something I don't have the right to do.

So, if you want to see pictures of my son in varying states of sleepiness, you'll have to catch me in person.

For now though, I'll be happy to describe him to you! (Feel free to skip to the next section if the description of a baby doesn't strike you as an exciting read.)

Well, he came into the world at 10 pounds and 22 inches long with a full head of hair, big ol jowls, and a thespian's range for facial expressions while defecating. His eyes are lightening from the nearly-black brown they were at birth as he gets some sun. He loves staring out the window. A lot of his day he spends looking at the sky. He rarely gets fussy outside of diaper and feed-me time, but when he does he usually just wants to be carried around and rocked a bit. The only hard part is he fights off sleep when he's being held so unless he's exhausted it's nearly impossible to get him to sleep this way. When he gets a belly full of milk though, he'll be out for four hours easily.

I wonder if all that is maybe worse than a photo or two? Well, here's to the old gods of print.

As for the poetry I've been thinking about sharing here, I'm still thinking about it. I've since placed one of them with a blog ( and I'm still thinking to share a few here. Maybe even with some commentary if I feel I might get some readers. So, watch this space.


In other news, there were a couple of incidents that occurred over these last two weeks that really got to me that I'd hate to taint this post with, so I'll leave them for another entry. Next week!